Millennium | 22. The Women’s Century - well, almost - Palden Jenkins

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Millennium | 22. The Women’s Century - well, almost

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"Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently" - Rosa Luxemburg, early 20th Century radical socialist, in 'The Russian Revolution'.

Women, appearing like a vociferous, upwardly-mobile minority, constitute 51% of humanity. In themselves and as mothers, wives, mistresses and daughters, females have impacted more than ever on public affairs during the 20th Century. Though modern times have their heroines and strongwomen, grass-roots women in their millions have perhaps caused the biggest shifts.

Several major factors brought women and female values to the forefront. Thanks to the work of suffragettes, newly-enfranchised women voters put social affairs to the forefront in politics. Taking control of their wombs from the 1960s onwards – thanks to the family-planning campaigns of Marie Stopes, Margaret Sanger and others – they increased their (and everyone’s) range of life-choices.

As consumers, women obliged new standards in provision of services, goods and education – late 20th Century advances in complementary medicine, childcare and personal justice have been women-led. Feminists carved out new values, freedoms and consensuses, influencing employment rights, social policy and education. Arguably, the Cold War ended through the influence of two first ladies, Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev.

As the wives, lovers, critics and backers of powerful men – from Roosevelt and Mao to Gorbachev and Clinton – and of lesser men in strikes, movements and daily life, women have pushed from behind, regardless of the glory. Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, probably saved a million lives, quietly.

As public leaders, a strange feminine mix of realism and tyranny arose. Perhaps the worst tyrant was T’zu-hsi, Chinese empress dowager, whose 1898 blocking of reform led to decades of later instability and suffering. Others have had streaks of greatness and toughness, such as Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher. High-profile women are prone to saviourliness too, through characters like Corazon Aquino, Princess Diana and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Great progress. Mission not yet accomplished. Women have daringly walked into boardrooms and courts and before cameras, yet still much on male terms. Masculised women who have gained power in this context held small respect for women who chose to stay home.

They encountered mighty opposition too from fearful men – the downfalls of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, of Benazir Bhutto and hosts of high-flying women have been unfairly man-engineered. The papacy, the US presidency, financial markets, Muslim and Chinese hierarchies, armies and most corporations today remain safe male preserves.

At the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995, women’s divisions were exposed too: Western agendas such as abortion, pornography and lesbian rights were rudely undercut by a Third World majority who wished to discuss water-supply, education and families.

A great disparity of values and realities emerged between affluent, educated Western women and those of African villages, Saudi communities and Brazilian shanty towns. The new victims are the world’s children, whose parents both now have other things on their mind.

There’s further to go. While women share varying interests, a concerted voice nevertheless moves mountains. The mass emotional phenomena surrounding Princess Di’s death in 1997 demonstrated that the world is primed for an outbreak of sensitivity, of pathos over past crimes and injustices and of new, nascent feelings which, in erupting, can change the way societies tick.

Society and civilisation is yet to incorporate feminine, inclusive, feelingful values – an immense shift affecting ecosystems, cities, social relations, religion, economies and... well, everything. The onus falls on men as much as women: the grief of soldiers, redundant fathers, exhausted employees and male victims will ensure that.

This feminising change starts from the personal, from the bottom, extending out and up to lifestyle and geopolitics. Were Karl Marx alive today, he would address the world’s women – or perhaps he would be a woman. This fundamental rebalancing constitutes a central task for the coming century.

NEXT: Twentieth Century timeline

The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium

© Copyright Palden Jenkins 1998, 2012.
This material may be downloaded, printed out in single copies for personal use
and quoted in parts with proper attribution and a link to this site.
All other uses require permission of the author, Palden Jenkins.
The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium was partially written in 1997-98 and never published.

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